Monday, December 10, 2012

See You Next Year?

I made a lot of progress this past week on the record, so I'm probably going to keep the blog shut down until the end of the year. I'll be back, I promise!

Monday, December 3, 2012

No Blog This Week

I'm coming up on a self-imposed deadline with the album I'm writing and need to redirect my focus this week. So 2005 will have to wait. Back next Monday!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Song #321 of 9999 - The Gentle Art of Making Enemies by Faith No More

Song #321 of 9999 

Title: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies
Artist: Faith No More
Year: 1995
Album: King For a Day, Fool For a Lifetime

Warning: This song has some bad words in it. You've been warned.

I really couldn't say goodbye to 1995 without sharing something from my favorite album of the year, Faith No More's King For a Day, Fool For a Lifetime. Prior to recoding this record, Faith No More fired their original guitarist and replaced him with Mr. Bungle's Trey Spruance. Spruance's creative approach to harmony is a perfect fit for Mike Patton's schizophrenic vocal style and the results are pretty stellar. I was tempted to feature the very accessible funk-pop track "Evidence," but to be honest, I love this album for its very heavy and very sinister rockers.

"The Gentle Art of Making Enemies" has a chord progression and riffs that emphasize the semi-tone (1/2-step) and the tri-tone to achieve this dark quality. After the introduction, Patton sings over a bass line that slithers around F# (F#-------F---F#-G-F#------etc.). The section that follows (featuring the FNM fan-favorite line "Happy Birthday...Fucker") features a riff that also emphasizes the semi-tone (E-F-F#-A-F#-F-E), while the "chorus" gets its punch from descending whole steps (B-A-G) and the tri-tone (E-Bb). Of course, Patton is brilliant throughout, his vocal track more a theatrical presentation than a song. In the final moments, he grabs hold of the line "I never felt this much alive" and shakes it until its neck is broken. I'm jealous every time.

See you tomorrow in 2005.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Songs #319 & #320 - Smashing Pumpkins

Songs #319 & #320 of 9999

Title: Bullet With Butterfly Wings/1979
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Year: 1995
Album: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

It's funny how a band's most ambitious work often signals the beginning of the end. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is monumental in scope. Too monumental for me as it turned out as I never had the patience to digest the entire album in one sitting. Not that I should have tried—Billy Corgan has described the two halves of the album as representing "night and day," so what business did I have trying to squeeze it into a measly two hours!? Corgan also said he wanted to "approach the album as if it were (the band's) last" and I don't think he realized how prescient he was being. (There were two more albums before the breakup but nothing as artistically or commercially successful as this.)

I chose two of the bigger hits for this post because I think they serve as appropriate bookends for the record and reveal some clues about the coming demise of Smashing Pumpkins. "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" rocks as hard as anything on Gish or Siamese Dream even as it structured to resemble a pop song. The guitars are dense and dark, the dynamic changes extreme. Harmonically, the song is essentially pentatonic—you can play it on just the black keys of your piano (try it!). Outside of the instrumental break at 2:26, there's not a half-step interval to be found. But most of all, the song drips with skeevy nervous tension, the perfect accompaniment for the "rat in a cage" refrain.

And then there's "1979," which Billy Corgan has described as the "most personally important song" on the record. We hear electronic drums, looped samples, synthesizers (or guitars that sound like synthesizers) and it all sounds....happy. I don't know how much the other band members contributed to this song but this is the sound of an evolving artist in Corgan. Suddenly, there is an exploration of wide interval dissonances (like the persistent major 7th that opens the track and a more subtle 9th that comes later) and all the density of the early Pumpkins sound is replaced with airy spaces. For better or for worse, this isn't the sound of a band and it's likely the moment Billy Corgan became the sole permanent member of Smashing Pumpkins.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Song #318 of 9999 - Black Star by Radiohead

Song #318 of 9999 

Title: Black Star
Artist: Radiohead
Year: 1995
Album: The Bends

I've been listening to all the songs on my iPod every morning while I get ready for work in alphabetical order by song title to insure a nice shuffle with no repetitions. A couple of weeks ago, "Black Star" popped up and I was stopped dead in my tracks by the voice I heard. I'm totally supportive of the direction Radiohead has taken and they remain one of the most creative forces in popular music today. But every once in a while, it's worth going back to The Bends to remember what a great pop band they were before they evolved into the world's greatest art project.

Thom Yorke's lyrics were just as unintelligible in 1995 as they are today but with less creative imagery. But it doesn't really matter because the delivery system is so pure and angelic and captivating, as Yorke takes up residence in his head voice for the duration of each of verse. (How great are those close vocal harmonies at 2:41?) The choice to remain in this range expertly sets up the hook as Yorke opens up in full voice for one of the most dramatic moments on the album. The use of texture in "Black Star" is also worth noting, with each verse and chorus arranged in a unique way. Check out the stunning second verse, where the band and producer manage to find room for all those guitars in a confined space without overpowering Yorke's falsetto. Outstanding track.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Song #317 of 9999 - San Andreas Fault by Natalie Merchant

Song #317 of 9999 

Title: San Andreas Fault
Artist: Natalie Merchant
Year: 1995
Album: Tigerlily

For some reason, I have a generally negative impression of Natalie Merchant, which seems unjustified. I own and have enjoyed both Tigerlily and its successor Ophelia, but I still feel as if I don't really take her seriously as an artist. I was never a big fan of 10,000 Maniacs so perhaps these feelings stem from my early experiences, but I must admit I have enjoyed revisiting her solo debut tonight.

Tigerlily is not going to challenge you. It works just fine as mellow background music and it won't distract you from a task or even your thoughts. It's like the pop equivalent of a Mozart Divertimento. The singles are well-worn but I find myself responding well to some of the deeper cuts, especially "Beloved Wife," "I May Know the Word," and the album opener "San Andreas Fault."

"San Andreas Fault" starts precisely the way you would expect from an artist like Merchant, with the spotlight aimed directly on her voice. The breezy arrangement is sparse and, structurally, there are just four chords to consider. The track begins with a pair of chords that give the impression of a folksy church-in-the-woods kind of gospel: subdominant (IV) proceeding to tonic (I), suggesting a plagal cadence (think "Amen" at the end of a hymn). However, the minor chords that follow (ii-vi) hint there may be darkness looming around the corner. The lyric reflects this sentiment, presenting California as the promised land but reminding us that the ground beneath our feet may betray us at any moment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Songs #315 & 316 - It's TWOsday!

Song #315 of 9999                        Song #316 of 9999

Title: Rammstein                           Title: Bo Diddley
Artist: Rammstein                          Artist: Bo Diddley
Year: 1995                                    Year: 1955
Album: Herzelied                           Album: Bo Diddley

Here are two song you don't see side by side every day! Tonight's theme is songs that have the same name as the artists who performed them. There are perhaps more of these than you think: Bad Company, Belle and Sebastian, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Icehouse, Motorhead, Body Count, Tin Machine, They Might Be Giants, Wilco...the list goes on and on. But I thought I'd take us back forty years to what may be the first! (Can you think of an earlier example?)

Let's go out of order and start with the elder statesman. "Bo Diddley" is Bo Diddley's rhythm-and-blues infused-with-hoodoo autobiographical third-person rendition of the lullaby "Hush Little Baby," set to a rhythmic pattern so unique and influential it has come to be known as the "Bo Diddley beat." Essentially the clave rhythm of Afro-Cuban music, the beat pattern took on a whole new personality in the hands of Diddley and his band. (I personally think the maracas make the song.) You could probably think of a half-dozen songs that use this beat without even trying, but I'll get you started: "I Want Candy" (Bow Wow Wow), "Desire" (U2), "Panic in Detroit" (David Bowie), "Faith" (George Michael), "Magic Bus" (The Who), "Not Fade Away" (Buddy Holly)'s another long list.

Rammstein's Herzelied (translation: "heartache") was released in 1995 but I was unaware of the German industrial band until 1997 when I saw David Lynch's neo-noir thriller Lost Highway. Lynch enlisted Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to collect most of the songs for the soundtrack, but chose two songs by Rammstein himself. Both are used to great effect in some very tense sequences in the film. "Rammstein" (the song) is about a 1988 air show disaster at the Ramstein (yes, one "m"—the band added the additional "m" to their name to allow for an alternate translation: "ramming stone") Air Force Base in the German town of the same name. The video shown here was directed by Lynch and features scenes from Lost Highway.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Song #314 of 9999 - Speaking With the Angel by Ron Sexsmith

Song #314 of 9999 

Title: Speaking With the Angel
Artist: Ron Sexsmith
Year: 1995
Album: Ron Sexsmith

I'm getting started late tonight so I'm going to make this brief and just let you listen to the best songwriter you've never heard singing a song from the best album you don't own. (If you're one of the enlightened few, good for you—spread the word!)

Canadian Ron Sexsmith is a songwriter's songwriter. Who loves him? Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe, Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen, Elton John—just those guys. His songs have been remade by a number of artists, most successfully Rod Stewart ("Secret Heart"), k.d. lang ("Fallen") and Emmylou Harris ("Hard Bargain"). Yet, Sexsmith himself has achieved only modest success despite sustained accolades from peers and critics.

"Speaking With the Angel" is from Sexsmith's 1995 debut, which is filled with amazing songs in spare settings. It was written for his son when he was just three months old and is the song that first brought him national attention. It's one of the most beautiful and moving songs I've ever heard. I hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Song #313 of 9999 - Your Latest Trick by Dire Straits

Song #313 of 9999 

Title: Your Latest Trick
Artist: Dire Straits
Year: 1985
Album: Brothers in Arms

Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits' most successful album, has a bit of a split personality. The songs that rocketed the record to #1 in virtually every civilized country (and Australia ;) are upbeat video-friendly concoctions guaranteed to send everyone to the dance floor at your sister's wedding ("Money for Nothing," "Walk of Life"). But if you keep working your way through the CD (and this was one of the first records to really be designed for the single-sided play of a CD, having been recorded and mastered entirely on digital equipment—DDD!), you find a melancholic mood ring of tunes that ranges from lullaby ("Why Worry") to lamentation ("Brothers in Arms"). The songs are looooong, meant to be digested, not swallowed whole. Two-thirds of them crack the five-minute mark and four are seven minutes or longer, allowing plenty of room for Mark Knopler's unique finger-picked electric lead guitar.

"Your Latest Trick" falls mostly into the latter category of songs but had enough commercial appeal to hit the singles charts in a few of the countries I mentioned (not released in the US, surprisingly). To me, the song sounds like a sequel to "Sultans of Swing" with Knopfler and Co. finding themselves back in a late-night bar playing jazz, but this time it's of the smooth Latin persuasion and Knopfler has handed the lead to saxophonist Michael Brecker. If you've heard this song a lot, that sax lick may be sounding a bit stale, but it you haven't, it's pretty crisp. And even though there are a lot of things occurring throughout the course of the song (including some really subtle distorted guitar work and fairly complex chord voicings in the electric piano) the arrangement sounds pretty spare, allowing Knopfler's understated delivery to quietly reflect the city-at-sleep setting of the lyric.

See you tomorrow in 1995.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Song #312 of 9999 - Take on Me by A-ha

Song #312 of 9999 

Title: Take on Me
Artist: A-ha
Year: 1985
Album: Hunting High and Low

A few days ago, I talked about the unusual descending 7th interval in the synth line of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill." A lot of music theory teachers use songs like this as so-called "cue tunes" for training students to recognize and sing intervals. (As an aside, I'm not one of them. To me, there's a big difference between sol-mi as a major sixth and re-ti as a major sixth. But I digress.) Almost universally, the cue tune for an ascending major 7th is "Bali Ha'i" from South Pacific, which opens with an octave leap and then a descent to the major 7th. It's not a great example, but there just weren't any better options. Until now!

"Take on Me," from the Norwegian band A-ha has so many things going for it: the infectious synth line that proceeds the first verse, the still-noteworthy music video, and the bubbly rhythmic jets that propel the song forward. But of course, it's the soaring chorus that steals the show with lead singer Morten Harket impressively spanning two-and-a-half octaves within eight bars and unknowingly ruining the evenings of future karaoke bar patrons everywhere. 

While I've always appreciated the pure glee associated with singing this chorus, I never noticed how valuable it is as an interval source. Right off the bat, Harket gives us an ascending major 7th with the first two words of the chorus (Take[A2] on [G#3]). In the second line, he begins with a perfect 5th, but I suggest listening to "me" to get the major 6th (Take[A3] me on [F#4]). In the third line, he provides an ascending minor 6th (I'll[C#4] be gone[A4])! And then for good measure, the last two words of the chorus (a[A4] daaaaaaaaaaay [E5]) demonstrate a perfect fifth. These are some of the hardest intervals to learn and here they are all in one place! Takk Morten Harket!!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Song #311 of 9999 - Life in a Northern Town by The Dream Academy

Song #311 of 9999 

Title: Life in a Northern Town
Artist: The Dream Academy
Year: 1985
Album: The Dream Academy

Have to work fast and keep it short tonight so not much on detail or analysis. Just a song. That's it. OKAY?????

One thing I like about the Second British Invasion of the 1980s is that there weren't really any supremely dominant bands like those of the 1960s. No-one was monopolizing the scene like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Yes, there was Duran Duran, Eurhythmics, Culture Club and Wham!, but none were so big that they completely overshadowed Big Country, Modern English, A Flock of Seagulls and Echo and the Bunnymen. As such, there are a lot of pop gems from the early 80s released by so-called "one-hit wonders" that are worth revisiting.

One of my favorites is "Life in a Northern Town" by The Dream Academy. I can't really say why this song resonated with me so much in 1985 since I had absolutely no point of reference for the "northern town" described in the song. But the cool sounds of the cello, English horn and kettledrums give the song a wintry aura that made me feel as though it could have been written for my northern town. In fact, the cities featured in both versions of the video (West Yorkshire and Newcastle-upon-Tyne) look as dreary and depressing as my town!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Song #310 of 9999 - Stay Up Late by Talking Heads

Song #310 of 9999 

Title: Stay Up Late
Artist: Talking Heads
Year: 1985
Album: Little Creatures

Little Creatures brought Talking Heads their greatest level of success, spawning two hit singles in "And She Was" and "Road to Nowhere." The record is decidedly simpler than their previous records, drawing more on country and gospel than on the art rock of their earlier records. But David Byrne's quirkiness and unique sense of humor remained intact and are gloriously on display in my favorite track from the record, "Stay Up Late."

Told from the perspective of an older sibling, the song unfolds in short phrases that form a call and response with the descending piano accompaniment. It's hard to tell if the older (but presumably still very young) child is acting maliciously or playfully when he suggests waking the baby from his sleep but it is clear he/she is intrigued by this new "plaything" provided by his mother. The lyric is masterfully efficient, as Byrne uses amazingly few words to convey the broad range of feelings (fascination, jealousy, joy, etc.) a child must feel when introduced to a new younger brother. 

Musically, the song teeters between major and minor. Every chord in the verse is major, but the progression descends like a minor scale from tonic to dominant (A-G-F-E). The chorus does the same, omitting the F, and emphasizing the minor 3rd between the G and E. During the verse, Byrne sings a melody that seems to deliberately muddy the tonal waters, often landing in the cracks between a minor and major third. For a very clear picture of this, listen to the harmony vocal at 1:37, which is kinda minor, kinda major. During the "all night long" section, the song finally gives in as the tonic chord shifts to A minor, where the song eventually ends.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Songs #308 and 309 - It's Wednesday, but it's also TWOsday!

Song #308 of 9999                                                Song #309 of 9999

Title: Russians                                                       Title: I Believe in Father Christmas
Artist: Sting                                                             Artist: Emerson, Lake and Palmer
Year: 1985                                                              Year: 1975
Album: The Dream of the Blue Turtles                Album: N/A - single release only

Drat drat drat! I hate when I miss an opportunity with my blog. A few weeks ago, I posted two songs by Green Day recorded ten years apart and called it "Transition Monday." I could have done the same thing with the two songs I'm featuring today but I didn't think of it. So okay, I could just feature them together on TWOsday, right? But that was yesterday and I used two Marillion songs from the same album—WEAK. *sigh*

So okay, what's the connection between "Russians" and "I Believe in Father Christmas"? It's Sergei Prokofiev of course! Melodies quoted from the Russian composer's 1934 film score for the Soviet film Lieutenant Kijé show up in both of these hits.

For Sting's lament on the Cold War, he borrows a solemn melody from the second movement of the five-movement concert suite called "Romance." Prokofiev wrote the melody while living in Paris but finding himself longing for his homeland. (He would move back to Russia in 1936.) Unlike the angular melodies and shifting tonality of his early works, the melodies in Kijé are lyrical and contained. Sting uses the melody as a bit of propaganda, tugging at the listener's heartstrings while having just sung the line "I hope the Russians love their children too." In 1985, this seemed like a bold statement; now, it seems kind of cold-hearted and crass. It's one thing when your synth patches sound dated, but what happens when your message follows suit? Perhaps if the USA and its allies had helped the countries of the Soviet Union land on their feet instead of letting them fall into poverty, this song could have a more positive legacy.

Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas," recorded several times over the years as a solo work and with his bandmates Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer, utilizes the primary melody from movement four of Lt. Kijé, the "Troika." A troika is a sleigh pulled by three horses or a Russian dance involving a man and two women who mimic the movements of horses pulling a sleigh. The melody has become strongly associated with Christmas and Lake uses it to good effect in his song, also a lament, about the commercialization of Christmas. Despite its triumphant ending and Lake's wish for all to have a Happy Christmas, he ends the song by grumping "the Christmas you get you deserve." Heh.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Songs #306 & 307 of 9999 - It's TWOsday!

Songs #306 & 307 of 9999 

Title: Kayleigh/Lavender
Artist: Marillion
Year: 1985
Album: Misplaced Childhood

One of the biggest hits during 1985 was "Sussudio" by Phil Collins, who was apparently so popular he didn't even have to use actual words anymore to sell records. It's a terrible terrible song and also a number one hit! For many of us, Phil Collins' success as a solo artist represented the terminal end of Genesis (who were already beginning to sound like a Phil Collins solo project) and we naturally went looking for a replacement. We found one in Marillion.

Marillion achieved only mild success in the United States despite charting several hit singles in the UK. "Kayleigh," marked by a syncopated minor key progression finger-picked on an electric guitar and painfully earnest lyrics, is reputed to have spawned a temporary influx of girls named Kayleigh in the UK; while "Lavender" borrows a 17th-century English folk song to evoke childhood memories (not mine, but someone's somewhere!). Both songs are wrought with emotion and the song arrangements are designed to tug on every heartstring you're willing to provide. Listening to these two tracks now (contiguous on the LP, but in separate videos here), it's hard for me to fathom why I liked them so much almost 30 years ago, but for whatever reason, they connected on a visceral level with this sensitive teenage boy. *shrug*

Monday, November 19, 2012

Song #305 of 9999 - Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush

Song #305 of 9999 

Title: Running Up That Hill
Artist: Kate Bush
Year: 1985
Album: Hounds of Love

Side one of Kate Bush's Hounds of Love is so good that it has taken me almost 45 minutes just to decide which track to feature in tonight's post. So I figured I'd go with the track Bush herself felt was most representative of the album, her most popular and accessible by this point in her career. The song has the added benefit of being featured in the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics so perhaps it is fresh in your memory.

Before there was Tori Amos, before there was Björk, there was Kate Bush with her remarkable range and unique tone quality. Quirky and artsy, she was a natural fit for her native England but failed to make a splash in the United States with early records. Less flowery and more primal, Hounds of Love connected with American audiences who had been primed by the British new wave of the previous few years.

"Running Up That Hill" melds tribal rhythms with angular melodies played on Bush's trademark Fairlight CMI and sung in her otherworldly soprano. The main melody is unusual for emphasizing a descending minor 7th, an interval rarely emphasized in any music, let alone the friendly confines of pop. (In fact, I cannot think of a single instance of this interval featured prominently anywhere and a cursory search on the internet resulted in lots of head-scratching theorists referencing only Gershwin's "An American in Paris," which does indeed begin with a descending minor 7th...that promptly resolves to a minor 6th—not quite the same thing.) Regular readers of this blog may also recognize our friend the pedal tone making a return appearance as the bass that accompanies the drum beat never once leaves the tonic note C despite all that is happening around it. Not even during that cool little bridge where Bush emerges from her art rock persona to sing something that sounds so pop ("come on baby/come on darling..."). It's such a special moment in this track because of how it so starkly contrasts with the prevailing mood of the song, which still sounds fresh and original to me over 25 years later.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Song #304 of 9999 - Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Song #304 of 9999 

Title: Born to Run
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Year: 1975
Album: Born to Run

I've never owned a copy of Born to Run and honestly, I didn't really understand all the fuss until much later in my life. I was in elementary school when the record came out so I didn't even know about it until Springsteen was in his Born in the USA period and I wasn't a fan so I never investigated his back catalog. Even when I became familiar with the song "Born to Run," I never stopped to pay it much attention as I was so entrenched in progressive rock at the time.

Today, it's like finding a treasure buried in the back yard. I'm continually amazed by the performance, arrangement and recording of this song. It seems timeless to me and with good reason. Springsteen borrows the teen dramas of the 1950s (especially those involving love and cars, which usually end tragically), combines it with the production of Phil Spector in the 1960s and wraps it all up nice and neat with universal themes of nostalgia and escapism. Lyrically, he manages to capture feelings of longing, desperation, lust—all set against the backdrop of the freeway, the universal American metaphor for liberation, maybe even transcendence. It's you and me against the world but we're not fighting—we're gonna run like hell and never look back.

Musically, the arrangement is so dramatic that, in lesser hands, it may devolve into overkill. But the E Street Band knows that, to make big moments, you have to stay small most of the time and they use dynamics very effectively. In fact, this is one of the most symphonic pop songs I've ever heard. Glockenspiels and saxophones, spaghetti-western guitars, swelling organs—there are so many different colors and in just the right doses. At 2:53, the descending unison chromatic line that sets up the return to the verse is riveting in its cinematic scope. And when Springsteen inexplicably counts the band in right before the recap at 3:05 (remember, this is the studio version—why would the band need to be counted in?), he makes everyone listening a part of the experience by simulating the feeling of being at a live performance. It's a clever way of drawing you even further into the song, which is part of Springsteen's genius: he sings about things and places that are familiar to him but makes you feel like the song is about you.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Song #303 of 9999 - Kashmir by Led Zeppelin

Song #303 of 9999 

Title: Kashmir
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Year: 1975
Album: Physical Graffiti

"Kashmir" has recently been licensed for use on the NBC show Revolution so it's kind of in heavy rotation at the moment in advertising. It is also a featured track on the band's forthcoming release Celebration Day, which chronicles a 2007 reunion concert. It's such an oft-played track that it seems like there may not be much to say about it at this point, but there's always room for a quick theoretical analysis, right?

There are two forces at play that make "Kashmir" such a unique creation: one is rhythmic and one is tonal. Let's deal with the rhythmic element first. The primary motive of the piece, played by guitarist Jimmy Page, is in 3/4 time, with an arrangement of eighth and sixteenth notes that divides the measure evenly (in the diagram below, m. 2 is not correctly spaced because of the "Bb"). But the heavy drum track laid down by John Bonham is in a relentless common time that refuses to accommodate the triple meter of Page's riff. This creates a "windshield wiper" effect sometimes referred to as a polymeter.

3  1e& 2 &a3 & | 1&a    2  &a3    &  | 1e& 2 &a3 & | 1e& 2 &a3 & |
4  AAA D AAA D | BbBbBb D  BbBbBb D  | BBB D BBB D | CCC D CCC D |
4  1   2   3     4    | 1    2         3   4 | 1     2   3   4   |   
4  B*  S*  B     S      B    S         B   S   B     S   B   S
*B=Bass Drum, S=Snare Drum

I like to imagine the conversation went like this. Jimmy: "Oh John, actually, this track is in 3/4." John: "It's in whatever meter I say it is!" (punches Page in gut) The effect of these conflicting elements is mesmerizing, especially when paired with the looping chromatic line Page is playing. (Robert Plant has stated that "it was what [Bonham] didn't do that made it work" and I think this nonconformity to the meter is what he's referring to.) During the breaks, the instruments join Bonham in 4/4, albeit with a syncopated rhythm that still suggests 3/4 or even 6/8. My favorite moment occurs at 2:14 where the 4/4 meter is interrupted and a bar of 3/8 is inserted in place of beat four. (There are other ways to notate this, but this is how I have seen it written: 3/4 + 3/8.) The six sixteenth notes that occupy the 3/8 bar then become the last six notes of the 4/4 bars that follow. It's one of my favorite transitions in all of pop (or anywhere for that matter).

While the rhythmic elements drive and steer the song, the tonal elements provide the Eastern flavor that resonates so much with most listeners. Truthfully, as much as we'd like to think this is what Eastern music sounds like, it's still very Western, employing no quarter tones and not based on the any of the Arabic scales known as the maqam or anything resembling an Indian ragaIn fact, the song seems to rely primarily on the D Mixolydian mode (one sharp like a G scale but it starting and ending on D) as its source with occasional forays into D melodic minor. Still, the rising chromatic line in Page's riff is almost monumental in its scope. It reminds me of an ant repeatedly (and triumphantly) scaling a hill only to be knocked back down and begin again—it has that kind of steady perseverance. And the song's emphasis on drones and open fifths rather than full chords does give it a heterophonic sound consistent with Arabic music.

Amazing song. Probably the height of Led Zeppelin's achievement as a band. It's easy to see why they continue to inspire and intrigue young listeners decade after decade.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Song #302 of 9999 - Squeeze Box by The Who

Song #302 of 9999 

Title: Squeeze Box
Artist: The Who
Year: 1975
Album: The Who By Numbers

I'm going to make this brief tonight because a) I'm tired and b) I don't really have much to say about this song—I just like it! It's such a funny song. I'm not really a sexual innuendo kind of guy, but this Pete Townshend-penned classic that uses the slang term for an accordion as a metaphor for a woman's chest just delights me to no end. I think the reason it works and doesn't come off as completely foul or gratuitous is that it's sung from the perspective of the couple's son (or daughter, I suppose) and the woman with the squeeze box is the one initiating the, uh....performance. I love when Roger Daltrey slips into falsetto at 1:30 to personify the mom. The touches of accordion are nice (and not overly obvious) and the banjo is just fantastic. It's a terrific song, guaranteed to bring out the giddy eight-year-old in you who still gets a kick out of the word "boobs."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Song #301 of 9999 - Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac

Song #301 of 9999 

Title: Rhiannon
Artist: Fleetwood Mac
Year: 1975
Album: Fleetwood Mac

"Rhiannon" is a fascinating little pop song by Stevie Nicks, who shared lead vocal chores for the FM radio band Fleetwood Mac during their most lucrative years. What intrigues me about this song is the mileage Nicks and the band get out of three chords.

Let's face it: three-chord songs have been around forever. The I-IV-V progression is a staple of the 1950s. (And 60s and 70s and 80s....well, you get the picture.) What's different about this song is the chords themselves—the i (a minor), the VI (F Major) and the III (C Major)—and the way they relate to one another during the song. I'm going to put special emphasis on the F Major chord, which seems to carry a lot of tension during the verses when it serves as a contrast to the tonic (i), during the progression i-VI, but seems almosts like a resting point during the chorus when contrasted with the III chord, during the progression III-VI. Here's how this all lays out within the song:

Am (i)
Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night
F (VI)
And wouldn't you love to love her?
Am (i)
Takes to the sky like a bird in flight
F (VI)
And who will be her lover?

All your life you've never seen a woman
F (VI)
Taken by the wind
Would you stay if she promised you heaven?
F (VI)
Will you ever win?

I think the difference is pretty obvious to the ear and I would go so far as to say the variations in tension support the idea that the chorus is actually in a different key (the relative C Major), even though the chords all fit nicely into A Minor. Its the way the chords function that leads me to this conclusion. The F in the chorus feels less like a VI than a IV and the C feels more like a I, making the chorus progression I-IV in C Major instead of III-VI in A Minor. Those of you with music theory backgrounds may find this analysis to be obvious, but I like the way it illustrates the variations in weight chords can have in relation to one another and to a given tonal center.

Toward the surface, there's a really cool thing that happens during the chorus with the backing vocals when the band sings "Rhiaaaaaaaa-non." At this point, we're back in A Minor with the i-VI (Am-F) progression. But the three-part harmony sung on top of the F bass is a C Major triad! This creates the very lush Fmaj7(add9). But the coolest moment is on the fourth repetition where the vocalists adjust two of the three notes to sing an F Major triad, which completely changes the complexion of the chord. It almost sounds like an entirely different chord (well, it kind of is) but if you check the bass, it's still an F. But an F with so much more stability than on the first three passes! Such a clever moment as it creates a firm turnaround to the tonic of the verse, decorated nicely by Lindsay's Buckingham's guitar break (at 1:50). It's the best moment in a very cool song.